Serena Williams, Simona Halep win on WTA return

Serena Williams and Simona Halep both made a winning return to competition on Tuesday despite being pushed to three sets.

WTA Tour events have been suspended since early March due to the global health crisis, and only resumed at last week’s Palermo Open before tournaments in Prague and Lexington, Kentucky began this week.

Top-10 players are now returning to competition for the first time in six months, with Serena Williams and Simona Halep headlining the draws at the inaugural Top Seed Open and the Prague Open respectively.

Both players got their first win since February on Tuesday – but neither of them found it straightforward.

Few players have more experience than Williams when it comes to returning from lengthy spells off court; the 38-year-old has had some extended breaks for injury and has played a limited schedule in recent years, especially since returning from maternity leave in 2018.

But the rust was clear in Lexington on Tuesday, especially in contrast to Williams’s opponent Bernarda Pera. The world no. 60 has been playing World Team Tennis exhibition matches during the lengthy ATP and WTA Tour shutdown, and for much of the first two sets she dominated Williams, keeping her pinned at the back of the court while the world no. 9 struggled vainly to keep her unforced errors under control.

WTA Lexington: Tournament information, latest news, schedules and live streams for Top Seed Open matches

Williams was on the brink of defeat when she trailed 0-40 on her serve at 4-6, 4-4, having failed to consolidate a hard-won break earlier in the set. But one game later, she broke Pera to send the match to a decider. Having taken a 3-1 lead, she saved break point to lead 4-1 and continued to read the Pera serve better and better as the match went on, breaking for 5-1 when Pera, rattled, netted a short forehand and serving out the win.

‘I haven’t played in so long. Even practice matches in training I haven’t played so it was good to go three sets and win a match,’ Williams said.

Williams’s reward will be a second-round clash with either sister Venus or two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka.

Simona Halep celebrates victory over Polona Hercog in Prague on Tuesday (PA Images)

World no. 2 Halep, who had played only slightly more recently than Williams, also showed the effects of the lengthy absence from competition as she narrowly survived her first-round match in Prague.

Halep’s last match saw her defeat Elena Rybakina in a third-set tie-break to claim the 20th WTA singles title of her career at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships; 173 days later, she extended her winning streak to five matches, although she found herself dragged to a third-set tie-break once again.

WTA Prague tournament information, latest news, schedules and live streaming information

Facing Polona Hercog of Slovenia, a 29-year-old veteran who dragged Halep to a decider twice in 2019 and won their only previous clay-court battle, was never going to be easy. But Halep made it look like it was going to be just that as she breezed through the opening set 6-1 against a stiff Martic. ‘I had the touch and the feeling,’ she said afterwards.

Halep looked like she had never been away, but after she broke to open the second set, the match changed drastically. Halep’s forehand began to misfire and Hercog began to vary the play, and swiftly the Slovenian player ran off six games to level the match.

The third set was an extended tussle which lasted longer than the first two sets combined as the two slogged their way through extended rallies. Halep served for the match at 5-3 but was unable to close out the win – then had a total of six unconverted match points on Hercog’s serve at 4-5 and 5-6 before the third-set tie-break arrived. Hercog had an initial mini-break, but Halep remained tough and lifted her game to eventually secure the win on her seventh match point, 6-1, 1-6, 7-6(3).

Halep told the WTA:

‘I felt tension in my back after the first set, even though it was short and I played well. After the second set, I felt tired. But I knew she was in the same position so I just had to stick to the plan and fight – the fighting helped me to win the match.

‘Sometimes it’s good to call it a good match – but I don’t wish for the next one to play three hours!’

Halep now has a day off from singles, although she is due to play doubles with Barbora Strycova, before facing Barbora Krejcikova, the world no. 118, in the second round on Thursday. They have played once before, with Halep coming back from a set down to beat Krejcikova on clay in Bucharest in 2016.

World no. 2 Simona Halep plays her first match since February at the Prague Open on Tuesday, against an opponent who’s always been tough for her.

Simona Halep vs Polona Hercog | WTA Prague Open R1 | Tuesday 11 August
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Halep 2-1
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Halep vs Hercog is live from Prague on Tuesday 11 August at 1pm local/12pm BST

The second week of the restarted WTA Tour sees top-10 players beginning to return to competition at the tournaments in Prague and Lexington. World no. 2 Halep, denied the opportunity to defend her Wimbledon title by the tournament’s cancellation, leads the field at the Prague Open and will be playing her first match since winning Dubai in February.

Prague Open tournament information, schedules, live streaming and latest news

With Halep’s plans to warm up with a doubles match on Monday scuppered by rain in Prague, the Romanian could be in for a tough time against Polona Hercog, who won their only previous clay-court meeting and took sets from Halep both times they met in 2019.

Read on for our preview, predictions and live streaming information.

How to watch Halep vs Hercog live

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Head-to-head: Halep vs Hercog

Halep leads the head-to-head with Hercog 2-1, but all three matches have gone the distance.

Hercog’s solitary win was also their only match on clay – but it came back in 2009 when Halep was ranked outside the top 200, Hercog inside the top 100.

The pair played twice in 2019 with Halep winning both encounters, but on both occasions Hercog took a set. Their Miami encounter last March was particularly close, with Hercog a tie-break away from victory, only for Halep to dominate the breaker allowing the Slovenian just one point and going on to win 5-7, 7-6(1), 6-2.

Polona Hercog has lost her last 21 matches vs top-10 players (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Halep vs Hercog: Preview

The unknowns are immense as WTA Tour players return to action from lay-offs which have lasted the best part of six months.

Halep’s last match was in mid-February when she defeated Elena Rybakina in a third-set tie-break to claim the 20th WTA title of her career at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, crowning a very strong start to the year which saw her go 10-2 and reach the semifinals of the Australian Open. But the Romanian was already headed for a break due to a foot injury causing her pain in Dubai when the suspension hit, and she hasn’t played exhibition tennis at all during the past few months – nor over-burdened herself with practicing and training.

This might turn out to have been an extremely good thing for Halep, allowing her to return physically and emotionally refreshed, but for a player who tends to need a lot of matches to find her best tennis, it leaves her vulnerable in these early matches.

Halep was planning to play doubles with Barbora Strycova to get in a little match time before starting her singles campaign, but rain on Monday washed out many matches in Prague including theirs and the top seed finds herself coming in to face Polona Hercog completely cold.

Hercog is also playing for the first time since February when she lost to Alison van Uytvanck in the first round of Doha. The Slovenian missed the best part of a year to injury in 2016-17 and has been rebuilding over the past few seasons. Her 2019 season was one of the best of her career: She claimed her first title since 2012 on clay in Lugano and ousted seeds at the French Open and Wimbledon, coming close to making the last 16 at the latter before narrowly losing to Coco Gauff.

Hercog last beat a top-10 player in 2012 and is on a 21-match losing streak against them, but she took sets from top-10 players on five occasions in 2020, including both times she played Halep; she was very close to beating Halep in Miami last March. Halep needs her forehand firing to be able to beat Hercog, but that’s precisely the part of her game that tends to be most erratic when she’s not match fit. In heavy, damp conditions in Prague, with both players so rusty, anything could happen but all three meetings between them have gone to the distance and this one should too,

Prediction

Halep 2-1 Hercog

Simona Halep vs Polona Hercog | WTA Prague Open R1 | Tuesday 11 August
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